Spartan Football 2018 Preview

The pageantry, the intense passion, the blind faith…college football, it’s all back soon.  On Saturday August 25th, the college football season begins, and 6 days later the Michigan State Spartans will have their first test of the year against Utah State in East Lansing.  We’ve waited a long time to see this team back on the field and there’s more energy and hype around this team than any in recent memory.  We’ve repeatedly heard about the 19 returning starters and the comeback this team made last season following the 3-9 disaster in 2016.  Last season the Spartans finished 10-3, completing their 6th year of the last 8 with 10 wins and an AP top 15 finish, something few of us ever thought was possible in the years before Mark Dantonio.

Don’t let the pessimists get to you, don’t let them kill your spirit. Your heart is right, this team has a real chance at Mark Dantonio’s 4th Big Ten championship and 2nd birth in the College Football Playoff.  Not only are there 19 returning starters, but 41 of 44 1st/2nd team players, including dark horse Heisman candidate Brian Lewerke at quarterback.  There’s also the fact that they return more offensive production than any team in FBS football.   There’s a manageable schedule that consists of both Michigan and Ohio State at home.  Lastly, there’s Mark Dantonio.

To get you ready for this season we’re going to break this team down unit by unit, find some strengths and weaknesses, and give you a KP bold ass prediction for the 2018-2019 season.  Enough talk of things we’ve heard all off season, let’s cut the small talk and get into it:

Quarterback

The man needs no introduction, after bursting onto the scene last year with 2,793 yards, a 59% completion percentage, and 20 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions, Brian Lewerke is on everyone’s radar from Heisman trophy voters to NFL scouts.  He showed off athleticism and moxie as MSU’s 2nd leading rusher, a skill he showcased with a savvy feel of when to roll out, when to get rid of it, and when to tuck it and run.  He’s the obvious leader of this offense. He’s an alpha who steps up in big moments, and if he takes the steps forward that most of us expect this season, he can add some awards to the trophy case and become a potential 1st round pick in the upcoming draft.  Behind Lewerke are a couple of young, inexperienced players in Rocky Lombardi and Theo Day, though hopefully they won’t be seeing anything other than mop up duty this season.

Running Back/Full Back

MSU returns LJ Scott, their leader in the backfield with just about 900 yards and 8 touchdowns last season, but gone is his mate Madre London, who showed a lot of promise in his time in East Lansing, and Gerald Holmes, who took his talents to the next level.  LJ is a powerful runner who puts his weight behind his shoulder pads and falls forward on every carry.  He’s going to need to make a few key improvements to his game, namely foot speed and consistently holding onto the football (5 fumbles last season), but if he plays to his potential he’ll put himself in a good position to play on Sundays.  Behind Scott, in London’s absence, sophomore running back Connor Hayward showed his talent in the spring game this year with a couple nice first downs and a touchdown run in the 1st half.  The likely starter at fullback this year will be former walk-on, red shirt senior, Collin Lucas who started 5 games in 2017.

Wide Receiver

This should be one of the strongest units in the Big Ten, the returning wide receivers account for nearly 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns and have a chance to put up even better numbers in 2018.  Felton Davis, Cody White, and Darrell Stewart Jr headline a strong group that includes plenty of untapped potential in players like Cam Chambers and incoming freshman Jalen Nailor.  Felton Davis is a senior who looks to make the jump to the next level after another strong season.  He’s a player with a tremendous catch radius, a great feel for locating the ball in the air, and the ability to high point 50/50 opportunities.  Darrell Stewart is a true playmaker who has the ability to bust a big play every time he touches the ball.  Cody White is a true sophomore who came on strong at the end of his freshman season, with 440 yards and 4 touchdowns in his last 7 games to close out the year.  This is a strong, experienced, balanced group who should be one of the top pass catching units in the country even after losing sophomore Hunter Rison to a transfer this off-season.

Tight End

Matt Sokol is the clear starter here, and will be counted on for a big step forward in the offense to truly unlock its near limitless potential.  He is a big, fast, athletic tight end with all the tools to be the guy who stretches the middle of the field and compliments the threats on the outside.  He needs to build his lower body strength to be stronger as a run blocker, as well as making himself more consistent in the passing game after only 21 catches last year.  Sophomore Matt Dotson and Freshman Trenton Gillison (a 4 star recruit with Delanie Walker-type traits) should also make an impact this season.

Offensive Line

This is a unit that returns 4 starters from last year (all but center Brian Allen), and one that needs to be better after an up and down 2017 season.  There are signs and whispers out of camp that this group took some necessary steps this off season, but I’m going to hold excitement until I see them punish a Big Ten front 7 for an entire game.  Returning starters consist of LT Cole Chewins, LG David Beedle, RG Kevin Jarvis, and RT Luke Campbell (with Beedle being the only senior in the group).  The most talked about positional battle this off season has been at center, where recently red-shirt junior Tyler Higby has reportedly taken the lead over to MSU offensive line legacy Matt Allen.  This unit shows a lot of potential, but desperately needs to improve on moving people in the run game after allowing under 4.1 yards per carry to backs last year.  If we can get a mean streak out of this unit there’s a real chance of this offense putting up 30+ points per game with a balanced attack.

Defensive Line

You’re lying if you say you weren’t surprised by the emergence of the defensive line, a group of unknowns that helped anchor the #2 rushing defense in the country, and racked up a ton of pressure on opposing QBs.  Former walk-on Kenny Willikes has been getting some hype after his impressive 7 sack, 14.5 TFL season in 2017, but he’s not the only player to get excited about here.  Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk are a great combination in the middle and both started all 13 games last season.  Both players are big, physical run-stuffers who have the ability to get in the backfield to pressure the quarterback.  Replacing the only missing starter, Demetrius Cooper, should be Mike’s brother, Jacub Panasiuk, however, this is one of the bigger questions marks on the teama. If Jacub can breakout anywhere near the level of Willikes last year look out for this pass rush around the edges.  Behind the starting unit are some talented, experienced players in Naquan Jones (DT) Gerald Owens (DT) as well as Justice and Dillon Alexander (DE).

Linebacker

Everything that Brian Lewerke was to the offense last season, Joe Bachie was to the defense.  He is the heart and soul of this Spartan defense, a player who plays fast and aggressive enough to be a turnover machine the same way he was in 2017.  Bachie was disrespected by B1G media by being voted to only the 3rd team All-B1G team last year, something that’s sure to fuel a fire to be the first MSU LB with multiple 100 tackle seasons since Greg Jones.  Also returning at LB is Andrew Dowell, who also started every game last season producing 74 tackles and a little bit of pressure off the weak-side.  We will be replacing one starter in Chris Frey, but not to worry as this is probably the deepest position on the MSU roster.  There are plenty of candidates to replace Frey as the strong side OLB, headlined by returning starter Jon Reschke, a man whose story doesn’t need to be told again.  We’re probably looking at red-shirt junior Tyriq Thompson, red-shirt sophomore Brandon Randle, or true sophomore Antjuan Simmons (not to mention legacy Byron Bullough).  Bullough is likely to be the backup Mike to Bachie, Simmons was a backup who played in all 13 games last year, and should continue that role this season, and Randle should fill a role as a situational blitzing pass rusher on passing downs.  My money on filling the starting role is the big, strong, athletic Thompson who checks all the boxes of what you look for in a strong-side linebacker.  He’s a downhill thumper who can fill a hole in the run game or stay with a TE or RB in the passing game, and should solidify himself as the guy by August 31st.

Cornerback

This article is coming on the heels of Josiah Scott’s injury announcement, one that froze the hearts of all Spartan football followers.  In classic Dantonio fashion, it was said that Scott could miss less than 2 months or more than 2 months.  Nonetheless we will have to figure out who will replace our #1 corner while he’s gone, and while we’re deep at the position, his impact will be missed.  6’3” junior Justin Layne will be the obvious replacement to Scott’s #1 role, but the question is now raised as to who will step up on the other side.  Layne had a very good season as the other corner last year with a pick and 8 passes defended, but will have to step up to show he can cover #1 receivers in Scott’s absence.  The top contenders for the newly-open spot are likely junior Josh Butler, who has served as a reliable backup and has plenty of experience, or one of several newcomers. True freshman DB’s Kalon Gervin and Xavier Henderson both figure to work their way into the playing rotation this season and the coaches and players alike seem to be high on redshirt freshman Shakur Brown. In my opinion this group is the true X-Factor in a potential Big Ten Championship run following the injury to future 1st round pick Josiah Scott.

Safety

Another position returning all sorts of experience, we return both starting safeties in Khari Willis and David Dowell.  Dowell made a huge impact last year with 5 INTs, 4 passes defended, and a couple fumble recoveries.  Willis was a leader in the secondary and finished with over 70 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2 picks.  Both players are capable of being All-B1G type players with their raw talent, experience, and knack for making plays in key games.  Behind the starters are senior Matt Morrissey and true freshman Xavier Henderson, an early enrollee who has a shot to make an impact his first year in East Lansing.

Specialists

No changes here as the Spartans return both kicker Matt Coghlin and punter Jake Hartbarger.  Coghlin is coming off a solid season where he connected on 15 of 19 attempts including a huge game-winner against Penn State.  Harbarger is a 3 year starter and should be one of the better punters in the conference, being placed on the Ray Guy watch list to start the 2018 season.  I have a special place in my heart for special teams, and this is a group that should have another great season helping lead us to the new heights this season.

Bold Ass Prediction

It’s prediction time, time to put my reputation on the line and call my shot for the 2018 college football season.

I’ve detailed every position group, shown the talent, experience, and leadership this team has coming back under Mark Dantonio.  We’ve talked about the reasonable schedule, and this entire article has been leading toward one big time prediction.

Look the B1G East is a tremendously talented division, but the door has never been so open for a title run as it is this year.  Ohio State has recently been under fire for Urban Meyer’s handling of WR coach Zach Smith, and we’ve directly seen the impact before of off the field issues impacting on the field performance.  While OSU has the talent and coaching to go undefeated any given season, this issue may cause a lack of focus and a potential down year.  Michigan has a great defense coming back, and has super-transfer Shae Patterson to exercise the quarterback demons from last season.  Personally I am not fully bought into Patterson, a tremendous arm talent, but he doesn’t seem to fit well into Harbaugh’s pro-style offense (not to mention unanswered questions at offensive line). Lastly Penn State is losing a ton of production on offense between Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, and DaeSean Hamilton, not to mention both starting safeties and their starting MLB on defense among others.  If/when we arrive in Indy, Wisconsin will be a tough challenge, but if we can follow Dantonio to another win in Indianapolis we should find our way to either Arlington or Miami for the College Football Playoff.

My prediction: 11-1 losing to only Nebraska in Lincoln late in the season, a birth and win in the Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin, and a 4 seed in the playoff to face Clemson in the CFP, a game we will likely lose against the most dominate defensive line I’ve ever seen.

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